JESUS LIVING IN MARY:
HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT
RETREATS

Summary
I.	Retreats in the Seventeenth Century: 
	1.	Religious reform in France in the seventeenth century; 
	2.	Retreats as an element of reform; 
	3.	The end of the age of Louis XIV and the beginning of the 	
		eighteenth century. 
II.	The Retreats Instituted by Montfort: 
	1.	Autobiographical evidence: 
		a.	Letters, 
		b.	Rules, 
		c.	Hymns, 
		d.	True Devotion; 
	2.	Biographical testimonies: 
		a.	The decisive and painful events of his life, 
		b.	Places of retreat; 
	3.	The apostolic life and retreats: 
		a.	Mission-retreats, 
		b.	Retreats for nuns. 
III.	The Spiritual Retreat Today: 
	1.	What is understood by the spiritual retreat today?; 
	2.	The content of the spiritual retreat; 
	3.	Several forms of the spiritual retreat.

I. RETREATS IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY
1. Religious reform in France in the seventeenth century 
The seventeenth century in France saw a spiritual upsurge that marked 
the life of the Church for a long time; it has been named the "golden 
age of spirituality." It was a time of reform, for the Church bore the 
heavy weight of an ignorant, lazy, and sometimes even corrupt clergy: 
there were too many of them in the towns, they had received little 
training, they were motivated often by financial gain, and they had a 
status that dispensed them from pastoral work but ensured a good income. 
As for the people, they were marked by ignorance and superstition of all 
kinds. This is the context in which a whole reform movement developed 
and widened in the course of the first part of the seventeenth century. 
This movement was both pastoral and deeply spiritual.1
2. Retreats as an element of reform 
The parish mission movement developed as a result of this reform. In the 
first decades the missions of the likes of Michel Le Nobletz or of 
Vincent de Paul had a double aim: to catechize the people in the 
rudiments of the faith and to have the people begin a new life in Christ 
by means of a general confession. The organization of the missions thus 
brought them closer in nature to what today would be termed retreats. 
Among a whole range of methods employed in order to develop the 
spiritual life, the retreat was clearly impressive. It was introduced 
both by the Jesuits and by the Franciscan Recollects of the Strict 
Observance and became so widespread that new houses for the 
"recollections" needed to be built. All the large towns and many country 
regions soon had such houses. In Paris the Saint-Lazare house of retreat 
was very well attended. For eight or ten days, people kept silence, were 
recollected, meditated, prayed, and listened to a director speaking on 
religious matters; then general confession was made and Communion 
received; the good Catholic left the house in excellent spirits.
Other methods were added to this movement directed towards the 
people. There were the growing influence of the colleges of the 
Jesuits, the Oratorians, and others, and the creation of the 
"exercises for ordinands," which contributed to the training of the 
clergy. In the fall of 1628, Vincent de Paul, in response to a 
request from his bishop, preached the first retreat of those to be 
ordained. This met with considerable success. The archbishop of Paris 
wanted to have the exercises in his own diocese; once he had seen how 
they went, he required that these exercises take place there in the 
future. Gradually this movement spread to several other dioceses of 
France.
3. The end of the age of Louis XIV and the beginning of the eighteenth 
 century 
In 1660 the extraordinary era of the "great century of souls"2 was 
already waning, and a new chapter of the Church in France was soon to 
begin. In fact, in 1660 Vincent de Paul died, preceded by eminent 
reformers such as Jean-Jacques Olier, Le Nobletz, and others. These 
deaths were omens, although, of those great figures who led the Church 
in its admirable effort of renewal; there were a few who, like John 
Eudes, survived and tried to continue the effort. Three tendencies 
developed out of this situation: the decline of the dynamism of the 
seventeenth century, the appearance of the new spirit of the eighteenth, 
and the opposition of various pastoral currents. At the beginning of the 
seventeenth century, the missions were therefore a means of doctrinal 
education for the people, leading to individual conversions. For the 
clergy, the "exercises" were a means to ensure their own theological 
training. Through these efforts many advances were made: the retreat 
movements, practice of the renewal of the baptismal vows and the 
propagation of prayer. In approximately the 1690s, at the latest in 
1700, the major preoccupation was to continue being the faithful heir to 
the past, improving on it only in a small number of ways. 

 

II. THE RETREATS INSTITUTED BY MONTFORT
1. Autobiographical evidence 
Montfort lived through the turn of the century (1673-1716), a time when 
the weakening of efforts for renewal in the Church was becoming more 
pronounced. His personal reaction to the "retreat movement"—one of the 
great means of reform for the clergy as well as the Christian people—is 
important to discover.
a. Letters. 
In order to understand his attitude to this situation, we must consider 
that although Montfort harbored a secret love of the secluded life, he 
also felt a great desire to attract people to a greater love of Our Lord 
and his Blessed Mother.
In the letter of December 6, 1700, to his director, Father 
Leschassier, Montfort expressed his spiritual state in the following 
terms: "On the one hand, I feel a secret attraction for a hidden life in 
which I can efface myself and combat my natural tendency to show off. On 
the other hand, I feel a tremendous urge to make our Lord and his holy 
Mother loved, to go in a humble and simple way to teach catechism to the 
poor in country places and to arouse in sinners a devotion to our 
Blessed Lady" (L 5).
Montfort certainly drew on energies from the great spiritual reforms 
of the past, which included retreats. As we learn from the letter 
written to his uncle Alain Robert on September 20, 1694, he participated 
in organized retreats: "I was not able to reply to your letter as soon 
as I wished because I was making a retreat at St. Sulpice in preparation 
for the reception of minor orders which, thanks be to God, I have now 
received" (L 2).
Retreat into solitude also had a quite special attraction for 
Montfort, having a central place in his personal life at those decisive 
moments and times of testing that marked his missionary life.
Montfort spoke of his habit of making retreats in letters to his director 
Leschassier. After he was obliged to wait for the bishop of Poitiers for 
four days, he wrote: "During this time I made a short retreat in a little 
room where I enclosed myself, in the middle of a large town where I knew 
nobody" (L 6).
Again, on July 4, 1702, when his ministry at the Hospital was 
threatened, he wrote: "During this painful period, I kept silent and 
lived in retreat putting my cause into the hands of God and relying on 
his help, in spite of opposite advice given to me. To this end I went 
for a week’s retreat to the Jesuits" (L 11).
b. Rules. 
The program of the missions preached by Montfort was similar to that of 
the retreats: a time of preaching and prayer that led to a total 
conversion to Christ. In 1713, with his future congregation in mind, 
Montfort wrote: "The purpose of these missions is to renew the spirit of 
Christianity among the faithful," In the chapter of RM entitled "Prayers 
and Spiritual Exercises," he recommends that they make "at least one day 
of recollection every month" after they have returned from their 
missions, and that "outside the times when they are giving missions . . 
. the time allotted during the mission for preaching and hearing 
confessions is devoted to study, prayer and retreat" (RM 78).
In RW, he wrote: "Each month they make a retreat of one day; and every 
year a retreat of ten days" (RW 134). Montfort entrusts the work of 
retreats to the Daughters of Wisdom as part of the "exterior aim" (RW 
1).
It is clear that in his life, Montfort favored retreats as a means of 
sanctifying himself and wished to pass it on to those men and women who 
would follow him.
c. Hymns. 
Montfort also spoke of retreat in another sense, a mystical sense, to 
signify the soul’s encounter with God, in a strengthening and reassuring 
exchange.
Thus, in his canticles to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, he sings: "This 
is the holiest retreat / Where all sin is avoided, / Where the most 
imperfect soul / Becomes most holy with little effort" (H 40:18). "Let 
us all make our retreat / In his sacred side" (H 72:19). "Dear lamb, 
keep your retreat / To avoid the wolves / To listen to me and to speak 
in secret" (H 106:37).
d. True Devotion. 
In a comparable sense, he took up the term "retreat" in TD, where he 
uses an allegory that might appear simplistic to modern interpreters: 
the biblical figures of Esau and Jacob as symbols of the punished 
reprobate and the chosen. The love for solitude appears to mark the 
chosen: "They stay at home . . . , they . . . love the interior life . . 
. in the company of the Blessed Virgin . . . whose glory is wholly 
interior" (TD 196).
2. Biographical testimonies 
a. The decisive and painful events of his life. 
Montfort told his director that he was both a man drawn to solitude and 
a missionary to the people. The biographers point out that it was quite 
"costly" for him to acquire biblical radicalism. But a retreat was 
always the new starting point that helped him to see more clearly the 
loving hand of God.
Biographers point out several retreats that he made in the course of 
his active missionary apostolate.
On his return from Rome in 1706, strengthened in his vocation of 
Apostolic Missionary, he decided to pause at the famous abbey of Saint-
Martin of Ligugé, which belonged to the Jesuits at the time. Obliged by 
Monsignor de la Poype to leave the diocese of Poitiers, he withdrew to 
the home of a priest who was a friend of his for a retreat of eight days 
in order to ask the Holy Spirit to direct his steps at this decisive 
moment of his life.
In September 1710, the failure of the Calvary of Pontchâteau brought 
him back to his usual method of spiritual renewal. He went on a week’s 
retreat at the house of the Jesuits in Nantes. "This is the calming 
remedy to which he turns when his heart is heavy."3 This was a painful 
but decisive moment in his life; he emerged from this retreat like a new 
man who had come to a deeper understanding of the fact that God’s ways 
include the Cross.
In 1714, once the bishop of Rennes had refused to accord him faculties 
in his diocese, he went on a retreat "with the Jesuits" near the 
College of Saint Thomas. For a week he lived in contemplation of Jesus 
Christ; and it is in the fervor of this retreat that he composed the 
circular letter to the Friends of the Cross, deeply engrossed in the 
mystery of God Incarnate crucified.4
In 1714, before leaving for Normandy and while reflecting on the 
importance of this journey, he withdrew from company in order to prepare 
himself by means of a fervent retreat.
b. Places of retreat. 
Not only did Montfort frequent houses of retreat, as, for example, those 
of the Jesuits, but he chose isolated places in order to immerse himself 
deeply into retreat.
His stay beneath the staircase of a wretched hovel on rue Pot-de-Fer 
in Paris was one of his prolonged retreats, where, filled with 
contemplative prayer, it appears that he wrote LEW (1703-1704), or at 
least a part of it.
The hermitage of Saint-Eloi at La Rochelle was also one of the places 
where he loved to withdraw between apostolic works. It is most probably 
there that he wrote TD in the fall of 1712. As well as Saint-Eloi, he 
chose other isolated areas, such as the grotto of Mervent and the 
hermitage of Saint-Lazare.
In these places far removed from the world, he sought tranquillity, 
peace, and contact with God in an atmosphere his ardent and mystic soul 
required.
3. The apostolic life and retreats 
a. Mission-retreats. 
Whoever surveys Montfort’s life can see that his love for a secluded, 
contemplative life was present even during his active parish missions. 
Clement XI named him an Apostolic Missionary, and Montfort gave meaning 
to this title through his activity both in popular missions and in 
retreats organized for different groups of people.
Grandet relates that he was preaching a retreat in 1706 to more than 
two hundred persons of the Third Orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. 
"There he was," remarked Le Crom, "at last a recognized missionary and, 
we might add, an up-to-date one. First the popular soup kitchens, then 
the closed retreats: the holy Breton priest, with his air of sanctity, 
was a man of progress."5
From 1707 to 1708, he joined Leuduger for the preaching of parish 
missions that could just as well have been called closed retreats. For 
"during the holy exercises, the church was really the center of 
existence for the people of the parish: catechism lessons, songs, 
prayers, examinations of conscience, and sermons followed each other all 
day long. At such times, the public squares of our towns resembled 
monastic cloisters."6 This type of mission utilized as far as possible 
the excellent method of closed retreats.
But either on account of his collaborators’ jealousy or Montfort’s 
eccentricity, the Father from Montfort was rejected by Leuduger, the 
director of the mission band. According to Vincent F. Desmaretz, bishop 
of Saint-Malo, it was because Montfort ceaselessly preached God’s mercy 
and the tenderness of the Blessed Virgin and because beggars and 
vagrants followed him everywhere.
L. Perouas tells us that in 1706 Montfort spoke of "mission" in 
reference to his recently completed preaching in the poor areas of 
Poitiers. Everything seems to indicate that it was a kind of retreat. It 
took people out of their regular parish routine. Montfort increasingly 
adopted the term "mission" to describe this time of prayer and 
reflection which was common at the time. In 1711 and 1715, he termed 
what his colleagues merely called "retreats" by the names: "women’s 
mission" and "soldiers’ mission."
b. Retreats for nuns. 
While Montfort preached retreats to penitents, he also gave several 
retreats to nuns. In 1712, at La Rochelle, he agreed to provide a 
retreat for the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine. On various 
occasions, he preached retreats to the nuns of the Order of Visitation 
of La Rochelle. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Providence, the Poor Clare 
nuns of the convent of Ave Maria, the nuns of the Sacred Heart of 
Ernemont, and countless others benefited from his preached retreats.
As for the themes that Montfort dealt with during retreats, there only 
remains an outline in LS 769-770 and an "Order of retreat" for four 
weeks in LS 771. From the mission to La Garnache in 1712, Montfort 
returned in "follow-up missions" to the parishes he had evangelized. He 
emphasized "dying happily" and handed out the short work HD.7

 

III. THE SPIRITUAL RETREAT TODAY
1. What is understood by the spiritual retreat today? 
In the seventeenth century, the retreat centered on conversion and 
individual salvation. At the outset, its function was the reform of the 
clergy and the instruction of the Christian people. Gradually it shed a 
certain doctrinal rigor, moved on to Christian morality, and rose to a 
spiritual, even mystical, level under the influence of the great saints 
who marked this period.
The idea of organized spiritual retreats preached in a retreat house 
for a week or a month has been passed down to us through the religious 
families that have preserved and lived this tradition.
The retreat, however, has evolved enormously both in form and content 
and has spread from religious houses to take its place in the midst of 
God’s people for persons of all ages and situations in life.
2. The content of the spiritual retreat
The spiritual retreat today is centered on the Word of God. Increasingly 
it begins with people’s experience in order to lead them to read their 
spiritual story in the light of the ever-living Word. It also tries by 
its content to lead Christians to a life lived in relation to God, a 
relation initiated by God (1 Jn 4:19).
The modern Christian who has progressed from an intellectual faith to 
a faith that is a vital response to God increasingly desires to have a 
personal experience of the Gospel and divine life. The retreat, in 
various forms, permits him or her to attain this encounter, this 
experience.
The retreat is a milieu where, far from feverish and noisy activity or 
only in privileged moments, the Christian can enter into a dialogue with 
God and with himself. Modern culture has changed the content of the 
dialogue radically, but the aim remains the same: the Christian must 
consciously place Christ at the center of his or her life, for "in 
reality the mystery of man can only be explained by the mystery of the 
Word incarnate . . . and reveals to him the sublimity of his vocation" 
(GS 22).
3. Several forms of the spiritual retreat 
The phenomenon of our having passed from awareness of individual 
salvation to the recognition of a collective and even cosmic salvation 
gives rise to a profound change in our encounter with God and the way we 
express it.
The traditional closed retreat, of variable length and spent in total 
or partial silence under the direction of a guide, still has a place 
today, especially among religious.
There is also an accompanied or organized retreat of six to eight 
days, centered on personal prayer rather than on content presented by a 
speaker. It is an encounter with God in solitude, an internalization of 
the texts of the Holy Spirit. This process aims to make individuals open 
to the working of God and to accustom them to discern His call so that 
they can respond with ever increasing faithfulness.
There are likewise the "thirty-day retreats" integrated into the 
normal routine of life. Without abandoning daily occupations, the 
individual sets special time aside to be in silence and meditate on the 
Word of God. This form of retreat is carried out under the direction of 
a competent director.
The young of today need special forms of the retreat, like simple days 
of recollection and weekends dedicated to conversation and to prayer in 
which people search together for answers to life’s problems. Taizé has 
proven to be admirably successful in drawing today’s youth into days of 
retreat and reflection.
Montfort spirituality not only draws its followers into times of 
solitude but also calls on them to provide times and places of retreat 
to others, especially to the poor. Saint Louis de Montfort’s life and 
writings, combined with a contemporary imitation of his creativity, are 
the important ingredients for Spirit-filled contemporary retreats.
H. Robitaille

 

Notes:
(1) R. Deville, L’Ecole française de spiritualité (The French 
School of Spirituality), Desclée, Paris 1980, 17ff. (2) H. Daniel-Rops, 
Histoire de l’Église du Christ (The History of the Christian Church), 
Grasset, Paris 1962-65, 7:31-32, 243ff. (3) B. Papàsogli, Montfort, A 
Prophet for Our Times, Edizioni Monfortane, Rome 1991, 37-38. (4) 
Besnard I, 154. (5) L. Le Crom, Un Apôtre marial, St. Louis-Marie 
Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), Librairie Mariale, Pontchateau 1942, 
182. (6) Ibid., 183 (7) L. Perouas, Grignion de Montfort, les pauvres et 
les missions (Montfort, the Poor, and Missions), Cerf, Paris 1966, 84.

 


Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St.
Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).
Provided courtesy of the Montfort Fathers © All Rights Reserved.

 

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